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Manhattan federal prosecutors said Tuesday they were “alarmed” by recent violence at New York City jails — and threatened to request that the Department of Correction be taken over by an independent body if the agency doesn’t improve conditions at the disordered detention facilities.
In a letter addressed to US District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain, a pair of Southern District of New York attorneys floated a receivership with the authority to enact “sweeping reforms” as they expressed frustration with City Hall’s failure to reveal a blueprint to improve the situation at the out-of-control city lockups.
“Absent a commitment to expeditiously make the dramatic systemic reforms identified by the Monitor and to bring in corrections experts from outside the Department to revamp the agency’s operations and staffing practices,” wrote Jeffrey Powell and Laura Eshkenazi, “we will be left with no other option but to seek more aggressive relief, which could involve seeking the appointment of a receiver with independent authority to implement sweeping reforms.”
The scathing letter comes after 16 people died in DOC custody last year — more than in 2019 and 2020 combined and the most fatalities since 2016. The DOC has reported three deaths so far this year at Rikers Island — a 10-facility jail complex home to more than 5,000 inmates, most of whom are accused of crimes and are detained there ahead of their trials.
In 2015, Judge Swain approved a landmark settlement in response to a class action lawsuit in which the city committed to reforms at Rikers to resolve claims of correction officers using excessive force against inmates. The deal included appointing a federal monitor, making correction officers wear body cameras, installing at least 7,800 surveillance cameras, and stricter rules prohibiting guards from hitting inmates in the head.
But problems at the long-troubled East River lockup persisted.
Last year, chronic absenteeism among Rikers Island guards created dangerous and chaotic conditions under which detainees assaulted each other, fatally overdosed and posted videos of themselves partying on social media. At the peak of the crisis, one in five correction workers didn’t show up for work because they claimed to be sick, a top Department of Correction official told City Council members.
Shocking photos of intake cells at Rikers Island between July and September that were obtained by The Post last October showed dozens of men crammed together for days in temporary holding cells. Filthy floors were sullied with rotten food, maggots, urine, feces and blood. Plastic sheets were used for blankets, cardboard boxes stood in for beds and bags substituted for toilets.
The dysfunction at Rikers last summer left the complex in need of $57 million worth of emergency repairs to fix broken doors and clean its ten jails.
A damning report released last spring by Steve J. Martin, the federal monitor overseeing the agency’s court-ordered reform efforts, concluded city jails were plagued by “systemic and deep-seated” issues that have created a “pervasive level of disorder and chaos.” The cascading crisis prompted then-Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce a plan last September to crack down on absenteeism at the jail, among other measures.
On March 16 of this year, a report filed in federal court revealed that absenteeism persisted and that the rate of violence in the Big Apple’s jails was “seven to eight times higher” than rates observed in other correctional systems.
The federal prosecutors working under Manhattan US Attorney Damian Williams say they have requested that the Department of Correction provide detailed measures they plan to take in response to the report, but have “not been provided with this level of detail.”
“[W]e remain frustrated by the lack of specific information provided thus far on how the
Department and City intend to actually implement the recommendations and address the ongoing unsafe and dangerous conditions at the jails,’ they said.
Under Mayor Eric Adams and new Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina, city lockups remain in a “state of crisis” in which absences remain high and correction staff routinely uses “unnecessary force,” federal authorities charged.
“We remain alarmed by the extraordinary level of violence and disorder at the jails and the ongoing imminent risk of harm that inmates and correction officers face every day,” the six-page letter reads. “The jails are in a state of crisis, inmates and staff are being seriously injured, and action is desperately needed now.”
“The continuing failure to follow basic security protocols, dysfunctional staff deployment practices, inexplicably high staff absenteeism levels, deficient management and supervision of frontline officers, and the failure to hold staff timely accountable for the use of excessive and unnecessary force against inmates have resulted in an unsafe environment and non-compliance with the core provisions of the Consent Judgment and the three Remedial Orders entered by this Court.”
During an unrelated press conference on Staten Island, Mayor Eric Adams insisted City Hall is capable of managing its detention complexes, stressing that the jail’s woes predate his taking office on Jan. 1.
“We can run our jails, we can run a jail system that has been a mess for decades,” the mayor said, claiming not to have been aware of the scathing letter. “And so Eric Adams, I know it’s hard to believe – but I’ve been the mayor for four months now – and I believe that we’re going to do a far better job than a generational problem at Rikers Island. The Rikers Island crisis did not start [in] January, 2022.”
“We’re going to look over the letter and find out what are the concerns and I think Commissioner Molina is moving in the right direction,” he said. “I’m really proud of what he’s doing. He’s the best person to be there.”
A rep for the Department of Correction said the agency is “deeply committed to the idea of reform and to working with all stakeholders to improve conditions.”
“We take the Monitor’s and U.S. Attorney’s concerns seriously and are working hard to address their concerns,” the spokesperson added. “We are reviewing the letter and will respond accordingly.”
The letter comes three months after Adams’ choice to serve as jails boss fired Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Investigation Sarena Townsend, who had been at odds with the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association. Her axing was part of a series of victories handed to the largest union representing jail workers.
Townsend had been lauded for her progress on the internal use-of-force case under the federal monitor, processing nearly 10,000 backlogged use-of-force cases over her three-year tenure.
Additional reporting by Bernadette Hogan, Ben Feuerherd and Maggie Hicks